“One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn't want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn't want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she's afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don't have time for it. Not now.” – Hillary Rodham, Age 21, Commencement Speech to her fellow Wellesley College graduates, May 31, 1969.
The millennials of this generation would find much to like in the 21 year-old’s speech of 47 years ago. It was the first time this honor was bestowed on a graduate at Wellesley, and Hillary was selected by her fellow students to represent them. Mark Leibovich in his 2007 New York Times article, “In turmoil of ’68, Clinton Found a New Voice” writes about Clinton’s life and student activism.
Hillary Rodham grew up in a conservative family. Her views in high school and early years of attending Wellesley College, an all-women’s private school in Wellesley, Massachusetts west of Boston, mimicked those of her parents: Republican. But through her experiences as a political science major in college, the Vietnam war and the antiwar movement, attending the Republican and Democratic Conventions, and exchanging views with her fellow students, her worldviews were evolving; and 48 years ago in 1968 she joined the Democratic Party, largely inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of peaceful protest. Her former professors and fellow students remember her as a student activist and leader. Her classmates elected her president of the Wellesley College Government Association.
At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, she witnessed first-hand the chaos of the antiwar movement in the streets outside the convention, expressing shock at the brutality — protesters throwing rocks, police officers beating protesters. In her memoir, “Living History,” she recalls spending hours that summer arguing with a friend over the “meaning of revolution and whether our country would face one.” She had previously met Dr. King after a speech in Chicago in 1962, and admired his peaceful, methodical approach to protest versus what she considered the excessively combative methods of other groups capturing the headlines in the media. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., her version of a protest was a two-day strike that she organized to recruit more black students and faculty, whereas in other campuses across the nation, demonstrations had turned ugly.
To put her commencement speech in context, it was a time of political unrest on campuses across the nation, not just for protesting the Vietnam war, but also for a student voice in the way their academic careers were being administered. The year before, Robert F. Kennedy as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated. Richard Nixon had just been elected president, and the number of Americans serving in the Vietnam war numbered 536,000. It was also a time of fear about the future as Americans were evenly divided and highly polarized in their opinions about the Vietnam war.
In her speech that day, the 21 year-old Hillary chose not to speak about the war, but rather about integrity, trust and respect in our institutions, colleges, churches and government, and the uncertainties and turmoil that were causing fear about the future. “We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty.” That line was from her carefully prepared speech, but on listening to headline speaker, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, an African American, moderate Republican, she decided to use her time on the podium to push back on the Senator’s remarks about empathy. From Christopher Anderson’s book, America's Evita: Hillary Clinton's Path to Power:
“Dropping her prepared text, she wasted no time lambasting her predecessor at the podium. “Senator Brooke,” she began, “part of the problem for empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do anything.” What her generation wanted now, she said, was action. She ended with a classmate’s poem that damned “The Hollow Men of anger and bitterness.””
Upon finishing her speech, Hillary received a seven-minute standing ovation from the audience of students, parents and faculty. Not everyone in the audience, however, was pleased. According to Anderson, “a sizable number of people in the audience were incensed—including short, sullen Hugh Rodham, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who admitted that at that moment he wanted to “lie on the ground and crawl away.” It probably was not easy to go against the political beliefs of her father, but in that moment on stage in front of her fellow students, she did what she had to do…speak from the heart about what they feel for their future. Mark Leibovich relates conversations with those who knew her:
“She was not an antiwar radical trying to create a mass movement,” said Ellen DuBois, who, with Ms. Rodham, was an organizer of a student strike that April. “She was very much committed to working within the political system. From a student activist perspective, there was a significant difference.”
“Looking back, it is easy to see that ambitious political science major in the first lady, United States senator and, now, presidential candidate she would become. She campaigned meticulously in student elections, going door to door and dorm to dorm. She wrote thank-you notes to professors who helped her.
“In the bustle of her excursions, she showed the zeal of an emerging political junkie. And, while outspoken and often blunt, Ms. Rodham was hardly a bomb-thrower. She was, then as now, dedicated to cerebral policy debates, government process and carefully calibrated positions.
““Her opinions are mature and responsible, rather than emotional and one-sided,” Alan Schechter, a political science professor at Wellesley, wrote in a law school recommendation that year for Ms. Rodham.”
Those words certainly describe the 21 year-old Hillary Rodham, but also the 68 year-old Hillary Clinton campaigning for the president of the United States. I have highlighted Hillary Rodham’s years at Wellesley College, primarily for the millennials who might be unaware that Hillary Rodham Clinton was at one time a highly successful student activist and progressive leader in promoting initiatives to give students a larger voice in their academic endeavors at the college, but also calling attention to the rights of minorities and the marginalized. Beyond her college experiences, her list of accomplishments from Yale Law School to Secretary of State is highly commendable, and one cannot deny that for her entire career she has been an outspoken advocate and leader for minority rights, women’s rights, children’s education and well-being, universal health care for all, and the rights of the less fortunate. On that we can all trust her.
The National First Ladies Library: First Lady Biography, Hillary Clinton provides an unbiased detailed account of her accomplishments from her time in Arkansas as “Bill’s wife” to Secretary of State. One of her signature achievements in Arkansas was the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which she cofounded in 1977. As the First Lady of the United States she led the unsuccessful effort for universal health care, but despite that defeat she persisted and was successful in working with Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch to pass the States Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) that provides health care coverage to children whose parents could not afford health insurance. As Senator for New York she was an influential member serving on five committees. As Secretary of State of an organization of 70,000 employees, she set out to rebuild America’s relationships with friends, allies and partners around the world. Eleni Kounalakis, United States Ambassador to Hungary, in a 2015 CNN article, Hillary Clinton revived America's reputation in world, describes the positive impact on Hillary Clinton’s travels around the world as Secretary of State, logging nearly a million miles in visiting 112 nations:
“Wherever she went, Clinton was met as a peer by the world’s most powerful leaders. But she also got out of the capitols and inside the countryside. Along the way she regularly met with small business owners, community activists, students, home makers, and other regular citizens. Diplomatically, and without bluster or bullying, without stealing headlines or focusing on her own legacy, Hillary Clinton rebuilt the network of American relationships around the globe. This is certainly her most important legacy and fundamental to the future of American leadership in the world.”
As many pundits also report, rightly or wrongly, Hillary Clinton has been called a polarizing figure, but her style is not one that encourages polarization. She can certainly be blunt as she was with Senator Brooks, but for the most part now as a more mature, experienced politician, she is a realist, and recognizes that to achieve progress one often needs to work within the institutions to seek common ground, not outside the institutions with confrontational rhetoric. And yes Hillary Rodham Clinton, 48 years ago and today, is a progressive; her style of progressivism of working within the system and influencing by building relationships and trust has been highly successful over the years with many wins and only a few losses. Now on the campaign trail she is being accused of not being a “real progressive” because she doesn’t pass some kind of purity test.
The definition of a progressive according to the Merriam Webster dictionary: of, relating to, or showing advancement; taking place gradually or step by step; favoring gradual political change and social improvement by action of the government. Note the reference to “step by step, gradual political change”. Webster makes no reference to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. That would be a big leap of faith. Rather being a progressive means you are making valued incremental steps to achieve progress over time…climbing steps in that tall building one step at a time until you have reached the top. Progressivism is taking satisfaction in making incremental improvements when the bigger goal seems far out of reach.
To put it more succinctly, incrementalism is like taking several small bites out of an apple. Try to eat the whole apple in one bite and you will choke on it. Taking small bites over time and eventually you will increment your way to the core of what you want to achieve. In that regard, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are incrementalists, and rational progressives.
Hillary Clinton is highly intelligent, confident and, like the opening quote by the 21 year-old in this article, shows no fear of the future. She shows a certain exuberance in taking on the challenges that lie ahead, most importantly working across the aisle with Republicans to find common ground and compromises on issues. It is because of her leadership and past successes, however, that she is both feared and respected by her political opponents in the Republican Party. More specifically the unprincipled power brokers in the party seek to manufacture scandals at her every turn to diminish her in the eyes of her supporters. From the Whitewater hearings of the 1990s to the Benghazi hearings to her private e-mail server to her speaking fees to her SuperPac and donations received from corporations, especially Wall Street banks, her activities and “guilt by association” have had a significant effect on her favorability ratings. None of these so called scandals have revealed anything that would call into question her trust and integrity. And nothing illegal. Yes, she is only human and has made some errors of judgment and mistakes for which she takes responsibility, but those who try to read into those mistakes something more sinister have a different agenda.
The operatives in the Republican Party are absolutely ruthless in that regard, not only with Hillary Clinton, but also Barack Obama. They have no scruples. They make scurrilous accusations with little basis in fact, and the mainstream media sensationalizes them further to improve their ratings. Social media spread the “scandal” around the internet with little regard to factual accuracy. They have done it to both Obama and Clinton, but they also do it to themselves. Just look at the way the Republican candidates for president treat each other on the debate stage and on the campaign trail. The word “civility” is missing from their personas. “Liar” is the word they use in petty shouting matches across the podium from each other. Really ugly stuff unworthy of the office of the president of the United States. It must be in their DNA. The media, however, loves it. America doesn’t need it.
Many blame Donald Trump, but Trump wasn’t the first. Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” shout-out during President Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2009 has set the tone. It raised him $2.7 million in campaign contributions in the days immediately after his two-word shout out to Obama. That’s $1.35 million per word…pretty good take for probably the shortest "speech" ever in the House of Representatives chamber. Republicans took notice...not at the words, but rather the money. Wow. There is lots of money to be made in selling anger, fear and hate. While that defines the Republican Party of 2009 and still today, the party of tomorrow will have to face the reality that sooner or later they'll have to put aside the emotional one line sound bites and be more substantive in their words and proposals.
For Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, that will be the biggest challenge of their presidencies, if elected – making progress when the opposing party’s modus operandi under the Obama presidency was to say “no” to just about everything. That practice as we are now seeing is experiencing blowback with anti-establishment rhetoric from both the left and the right. It will require pragmatism and patience to rebuild that trust in our government.
After doing research on all the candidates, both Democratic and Republican, I felt that I needed to do more than just write articles and forum posts. I went down to the newly opened Hillary Clinton campaign office in Colorado Springs and said I would like to canvass for Hillary. I am an experienced canvasser having knocked on some 700 doors for President Obama in the 2012 campaign. They gave me a piece of paper with instructions, but very little in “talking points” that the Obama campaign had provided. I asked what we should say when meeting someone who hadn’t made up their minds. Their reply was simple…just tell them why you personally are supporting Hillary and don’t go negative on Bernie.
I liked that because my worldviews largely mimic those of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I don’t agree with everything they say and do, but neither do I demand that “100 percent” that many liberals who administer purity tests demand of their candidates. I’m okay with 80 to 90 percent. I’m okay with just taking several small bites out of the apple during the next eight years. I am optimistic that eventually we’ll have true universal health care, eventually we’ll get rid of Citizens United, eventually we’ll save the planet from Climate Change, and yes, that we’ll make progress on reducing inequality in America by widening the opportunities for young and poor people to climb the ladder of success. It is slow hard work and can take years. But none of it can happen if we remain divided and don’t vote with our minds rather than our emotions. And none of it will ever happen if we don’t care enough to vote at all. Republicans would like that.
"I learned some valuable lessons about the legislative process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done.” -- Senator Hillary Clinton in her first speech on the Senate floor, February 14, 2001.
Clinton’s above statement was made in reference to her defeat seven years earlier in trying to get universal health care legislation (HillaryCare) passed. Out of that bitter defeat emerged a wiser, smarter and more politically savvy Hillary Clinton…a Hillary Clinton exhibiting no fear as she is now ready to lead our nation as she led her fellow students as a student activist and president of the Wellesley College Government Association 48 years ago.
Vote on election day. Your future and your children’s future depends on it.